A painted rose is my final memory of life as we knew it.
On Sept. 11, 2001, I visited the home of a charming lady who painted china plates–adorning them with images of pink and scarlet roses that rendered these samples of fine cookware works of ebullient art. In my job as a correspondent for the Pasco County bureau of The Tampa Tribune, I was there to interview her for an arts column–a feature intended to bring a little beauty and entertainment to our readership.
Then, suddenly, everything changed. Her husband walked into the room and told us the unthinkable–he told us of airplanes crashing into buildings, of bombs, death and destruction.
Dear God, no. Both of my sisters worked at government buildings, one of them in Washington, DC. My parents in Spring Hill must be devastated–my Dad was a Navy veteran, my mom was as tough as they come. My nephews–were they at school? Were they frightened? How many people did that man say were killed? It was unthinkable.
I rushed home, checking in with friends and family. They, thank the Lord, were OK–but how many others weren’t? Finally and most importantly, what could I do to make things even a little bit better?
After filing my story, I went in search of others; stories that would encourage, uplift, or at least bring a little cheer.
What I found, most appropriately, was the New York Club; a group of NY natives who met each week in Pasco to eat, share, laugh and reminisce. They had coordinated a fund-raiser for their brothers and sisters back home–in honor of those who would never be able to laugh with them. I told their story. I also found a military veteran turned artist, who rendered compelling drawings of rescue planes he himself had flown.
“The people we helped were so glad to see us,” he told me. “They were so glad the Americans had come.”
A few weeks later, while working my weekend job as a sales associate at Hallmark Citrus Park, I waited on a young mother who’d just given birth to beautiful twin babies; infants I gushed profusely over as I asked, “When were these little cuties born?”
The mother looked at me a long moment, her proud smile disappearing as she told me, “Sept. 11. I am so sad that their birthday has to fall on 9/11.”
“Don’t be sad,” I advised her. “What you have in these beautiful children, is proof that we can go on.”
Again inspired, I wrote an essay about the twins during my lunch break; at the end of the day calling my best friend, Linda White-Francis, to suggest that we dedicate a special issue of The Ladies Sampler–a literary magazine we co-published in Pasco County–to the strength and resilience of the American spirit.
For the cover of the magazine, Linda painted a beautiful portrait of an angel holding an American flag. I contributed my essay and a poem, and our contributors came through with some wonderful essays and poems. At the end of the day, my friend and I were proud once again that we could make things just a little bit better.
It was another magazine assignment that, in September 2013, took me on a fun trip to Miami to interview a Showtime TV star–with a scheduled return flight of 10 p.m. Sept. 10. But by the time I got to the airport, I quickly learned that my flight would be delayed for two hours.
Frustrated and exhausted, I sank into a chair next to a solemn sister passenger; one who felt lower than I did, and for a very good reason.
“I’m a native New Yorker,” she told me. “I lost so many friends on 9/11. I did not want to be in the air on Sept. 11.”
I visited the ticket desk in the company of this stalwart woman, as we tried to see if there was something–anything–they could do.
Although they offered to reschedule her flight, she decided to brave it all and fly home on 9/11. I stayed by her side as long as I could, we talked together of our lives and memories. And although we sat separately on the flight that night, her eyes found me when we landed in Tampa. We shared a long, quiet smile and decided we’d made things just a little bit better.
As I trudged through the corridors of Tampa International Airport, I stopped stock still as I heard the opening bars of a classic Rolling Stones song; one written long before 9/11, that–in that moment–seemed to fit the bill perfectly.
“I’m not waiting on a lad-y,” I sang along. “I’m just waitin’ on a friend.”